Courts

Friday, December 6, 2019

AG Won't Take Lawson Case

Posted By on Fri, Dec 6, 2019 at 3:10 PM

The California Attorney General's Office has informed Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming that it will not be taking responsibility for any possible prosecution related to the 2017 killing of David Josiah Lawson.

David Josiah Lawson - SUBMITTED
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  • David Josiah Lawson
"Absent a reusable conflict of interest, the Attorney General's Office generally only takes over a prosecution handled by a district attorney when there is an abuse of discretion," reads the letter penned by Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Laurence. "The district attorney is given broad discretion in prosecuting criminal cases because she is the official who has been elected by that county to act as its public prosecutor. Based on our internal review of the case, we could not find evidence that you abused your discretion in how you handled the prosecution of this case."

Fleming reached out to the Attorney General's Office back in April, just weeks after a criminal grand jury convened to look at evidence in the Humboldt State University sophomore's killing declined to indict anyone in the case. In her request, Fleming maintained that her office had "made the right decisions and taken appropriate actions at ever step" in the case but was asking for the AG's intervention because public perception of her office's handling of the case had been "influenced by misinformation in the public arena from people with legal or law enforcement backgrounds who have been involved with the case."

Lawson was fatally stabbed around 3 a.m. on April 15, 2017, at an off-campus party. A then 23-year-old McKinleyville man, Kyle Zoellner, was arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson's murder but a Humboldt County Superior Court judge ruled weeks later there was insufficient evidence to hold him to stand trial and dismissed the case. Zoellner was also the focus of the criminal grand jury convened in February but the jury, in an outcome legal experts deemed rare, declined to hand up an indictment in the case.

Protests followed the grand jury's decision, with some — including Lawson's mother, Charmaine Lawson — publicly calling for Fleming's recall and pleading with the Attorney General's Office to intercede in the case.

The case — currently Arcata's only unsolved homicide — remains under investigation, with Charmaine Lawson and Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn having recently recorded a PSA pleading for witnesses to come forward.

In the letter, Laurence notes the office is "deeply saddened" by Lawson's "tragic death" and offers condolences to the Lawson family and the local community.

"We mourn the tragic loss of Mr. Lawsons' life," the letter states. "However, we could not find evidence that calls for the Department of Justice's intervention in the case, and will not be taking any further action in this matter."

See the full press release from the District Attorney's Office copied below. Fleming's letter to the AG can be found here, with the AG's reply here.


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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Why California’s top court just struck down the state’s Trump tax return law

Posted By on Thu, Nov 21, 2019 at 11:26 AM

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Many constitutional law experts, former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Republican Party are now all officially entitled to say, “I told you so.”

This morning the California Supreme Court unanimously struck down a new state law that would have required presidential candidates to publicly disclose their tax returns before appearing on the primary ballot.

Passed by the supermajority of Democrats in California’s Legislature and signed by new Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, the law was the statutory embodiment of California’s place at the front of the anti-Trump “Resistance.” It was a blatant dig at the GOP president — and one that generated plenty of national media attention.

But to some constitutional law scholars, the law was also obviously unconstitutional. Gov. Brown shared those concerns when he vetoed identical legislation in 2017.

Trump declined to release his tax returns during the 2016 presidential campaign, breaking with a precedent set in 1976 by President Jimmy Carter following the Watergate scandal.

“First, it may not be constitutional,” Brown wrote in his veto message at the time. “Second, it sets a ‘slippery slope’ precedent. Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?”

All seven justices of California’s Supreme Court were similarly persuaded.

“The Legislature may well be correct that a presidential candidate’s income tax returns could provide California voters with important information,” wrote Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, a Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointee. But, she added, the state constitution makes clear “it is the voters who must decide” whether a presidential candidate’s refusal “to make such information available to the public will have consequences at the ballot box.”

The chief justice is a former Republican who told CalMatters last year that she had left the GOP and switched her voter registration to no party preference — citing her increasing discomfort with the direction of the Republican Party.

The ruling was predicted by many who watched the expedited hearing the court held on the case earlier this month.

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Saturday, November 16, 2019

Charmaine Lawson Holds 31-month Vigil for Her Son, Hopes Documentary Will Bring Outside Attention to Unsolved Case

Posted By on Sat, Nov 16, 2019 at 10:30 AM

It has been 31 months since Humboldt State University sophomore David Josiah Lawson was killed.

On Friday, the anniversary of her 19-year-old son’s death, a group of a few dozen students and community members surrounded Charmaine Lawson at a small vigil at the Arcata Methodist Church, during which the group watched Who Killed Josiah?, a short documentary by the Southern California station KCET that they hope will bring renewed attention to the still-unsolved killing. (Find the documentary embedded below.)

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The documentary describes Arcata as a town “polarized over allegations of racism and police incompetence surrounding the death of college student Josiah Lawson.” For Charmaine Lawson, the documentary is an emotional roller coaster.

“Watching it the first time was heartbreaking,” she says. “When I saw the documentary the first time, I didn’t talk to anyone for two weeks. I was in another zone — very difficult to watch.”

David Josiah Lawson, a criminology major from the city of Perris in Riverside County, was stabbed to death at an off-campus party around 3 a.m. April 15th 2017. Kyle Zoellner, a then 23-year-old McKinleyville man, was arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson’s murder but the charge was dismissed weeks later, when Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholsten found insufficient evidence to hold him.

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Friday, September 20, 2019

Mendo DA Upset to Learn of Former EPD Officer's Past Dishonesty, Will Dismiss Cases that Require His Testimony

Posted By on Fri, Sep 20, 2019 at 10:38 AM

Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster has grave concerns about the Willits Police Department’s hiring of Jacob Jones, having learned of sustained allegations of the officer’s dishonesty during his tenure with the Eureka Police Department.

In a scathing, incredulous 2,400-word letter to Willits Police Chief Scott Warnock, Eyster expresses dismay at Jones’ hiring despite the sustained allegations that he lied to superiors in an attempt to hide “defective or incompetent” police work while in Eureka last year and anger that Warnock didn’t inform him of Jones’ past, leaving Mendocino County’s top prosecutor to learn about them through an Aug. 29 article in the North Coast Journal (“Light in Dark Places”). In the letter, Eyster goes into detail to explain how the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland requires prosecutors to turn over any exculpatory evidence they have in a case, which subsequent courts have determined includes any evidence of past instances of dishonesty by the investigating officers.

“Words cannot adequately express how disappointed I am that you failed to notify me or, for that matter, anybody in my office of the peace officer hiring of Jacob Jones despite Mr. Jones’ obviously Brady background,” Eyster writes. “Having personally reviewed the Brady materials provided to you by the Eureka Police Department, you surprisingly overlooked what was important therein and approved the hiring of this badly tainted former EPD officer as a Willits police officer. First, I would never have thought in a million years that it would be necessary for me to remind you that honesty and credibility have always been essential traits for a police officer.”

Jacob Jones is sworn in as a Willits police officer June 12. - FACEBOOK/WILLITS POLICE DEPARTMENT. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JONATHAN WEBSTER.
  • Facebook/Willits Police Department. Photo illustration by Jonathan Webster.
  • Jacob Jones is sworn in as a Willits police officer June 12.
Eyster further writes that he is personally reviewing every criminal case in which his office planned to use Jones as a “necessary and material prosecution witness” with plans to dismiss them unless they can be prosecuted without Jones’ involvement.

Warnock responded to a Journal inquiry seeking a response to Eyster's letter and an update on Jones' work status and duties but declined to comment, saying it's a "personnel matter." Willits Human Resources analyst Karen Stevenson said Jones remains employed by the city, though he is presently “on vacation.”

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Thursday, September 19, 2019

McGuire: Judge's Tax Return Law Ruling 'Perplexing, Premature and Unneccesary'

Posted By on Thu, Sep 19, 2019 at 4:12 PM

A federal judge today granted a temporary injunction to block California’s recently signed legislation that requires presidential and gubernatorial candidates to release their tax returns to appear on the state’s primary ballot.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. said a final ruling in the case would be coming in the next few days but there would be “irreparable harm without temporary relief.”

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The Presidential Tax Transparency & Accountability Act was challenged within days of its July 30 signing by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who at the time said that “states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence.”

Judicial Watch, a self-described “conservative, non-partisan educational foundation” that “promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law,” was the first to sue. That action was quickly followed by President Donald Trump and his campaign and the Republican state and national parties, which filed two separate lawsuits.

North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire McGuire, who co-authored the legislation with Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, described England’s ruling as “perplexing, premature and not necessary.”

“We’re way out in front of any deadline required under the law and the irreparable harm argument is simply not apparent,” McGuire said in a statement released by his office. “I think the judge got this one wrong and a decision as important as this should not have been rushed or the law prematurely shut down.

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

Eureka, County Are Parties in Opioid Settlement Agreement

Posted By on Thu, Sep 12, 2019 at 11:02 AM

Eureka and Humboldt County are parties to the tentative multi-billion-dollar settlement reached this week in a landmark lawsuit brought by thousands of municipal governments and more than two dozen states against Purdue Pharma, the company that created OxyContin.

The settlement — which still needs to be ratified by plaintiffs and approved by the judge — reportedly involves Purdue Pharma filing for bankruptcy protection, dissolving and emerging as a new company, the profits of which would be distributed among plaintiffs in the case. The deal also would reportedly see Purdue Pharma’s owners, the Sackler family, pay out $3 billion in cash over seven years but includes no admission of wrongdoing. According to NBC News, the entire settlement is valued at $10 billion to $12 billion.
The county of Humboldt, home to more opioid prescriptions than people, and the city of Eureka are parties to the tentative settlement reached with Purdue Pharma in the massive opioid lawsuit that includes more than 2,000 municipalities. - FLICKR
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  • The county of Humboldt, home to more opioid prescriptions than people, and the city of Eureka are parties to the tentative settlement reached with Purdue Pharma in the massive opioid lawsuit that includes more than 2,000 municipalities.
Eureka City Attorney Bob Black said the city is still awaiting details on the particulars of the settlement and how funds would be distributed, noting that the agreement will need to be approved by at least 75 percent of plaintiffs in the case to take effect.

That may prove a high bar, as some parties have already publicly criticized the settlement as inadequate.

“@purduepharma has provided an insultingly weak offer to the American people for the #OpioidEpidemic that they’ve fueled for decades,” Pensylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro tweeted yesterday. “It allows them to walk away billionaires and admit no wrongdoing. I don’t accept that.”

A sticking point in settlement negotiations has reportedly been how much of its personal fortunate the Sackler family would be included in a payout. The case had been scheduled for trial next month in Ohio.

In its complaints — filed by the firm Keller Rohrback — Eureka and the county alleged Purdue Pharma violated federal racketeering laws and constituted a public nuisance by minimizing addiction risks associated with OxyContin, which led to overprescribing and fueled the national opioid epidemic.

The Yurok Tribe also has a suit pending against Purude Pharma, though we don’t know if it, too, is included in the tentative settlement agreement, as an email to the tribe’s spokesperson has not yet been returned.

Confirming that Humboldt County is a party to the settlement, Spokesperson Sean Quincey, like Black, said the particular provisions of the agreement aren’t yet clear.

“The settlement means the county will likely receive an award of money to compensate us for the damage created by the opioid crisis but we do not yet have the details of the agreement,” he said.
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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

UPDATE: Republican Party, Trump Take on Golden State Over Tax Returns

Posted By on Tue, Aug 6, 2019 at 12:14 PM

UPDATE:

Following in the footsteps of Judicial Watch, President Donald Trump and his campaign and the Republican state and national parties filed two separate lawsuits today over the tax return law recently signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Each case alleges California’s move to make releasing a candidate’s tax returns a prerequisite to being placed on the state’s primary ballot was unconstitutional.

"We will not allow California's Democrats to use the state's voters as pawns in their petty political vendettas to trample all over the Constitution," RNC National Committeewoman and Vice President of the Republican National Lawyers Association, Harmeet K. Dhillon said in a release. "This law is a cynical and illegal voter suppression scheme whose sole purpose is to deny California voters their Constitutionally protected right to vote for qualified candidates for president, and to suppress the Republican vote in California not just for president but also for all the down-ticket races, ballot measures and power grabs the Democrats have in store for the 2020 ballot."

State Sen. Mike McGuire, who co-authored Senate Bill 27, shot back at Trump and what his office deemed “a frivolous lawsuit against the state of California.”

“Releasing of tax returns has never been a big deal, up until now. All presidents have done it for 40 years,” McGuire said. “It comes as no surprise that President Trump would freak out at the prospect of presidential transparency and accountability, but he will need to get used to it. Welcome to the rule of law, Mr. President.”

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Judicial Watch, a self-described “conservative, non-partisan educational foundation” that “promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law,” is suing the state of California over a law that requires presidential and gubernatorial candidates to show their personal taxes returns to get on the primary ballot.

The federal lawsuit comes just as the ink sets on Senate Bill 27, with Judicial Watch arguing the legislation adds requirements “beyond those allowed by the U.S. Constitution and impermissibly burdens a voters’ expressive constitutional and statutory rights.”

Gavin Newsom - WIKIPEDIA
  • Wikipedia
  • Gavin Newsom
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law July 30, stating that “these are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence.”

Co-penned by North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire McGuire — who  praised Newsom’s signing as a victory for transparency — and Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, presidential hopefuls and gubernatorial candidates must now produce “copies of every income tax return filed with the Internal Revenue Service in the five most recent taxable years with the Secretary of State, at least 98 days prior to the corresponding primary election.”

Mike McGuire
  • Mike McGuire
In a release, Judicial Watch alleges S.B. 27 is political in nature and outside the bounds of California’s “legitimate constitutional role in administering and establishing procedures for conducting federal elections.”

The foundation points to concerns raised by former Gov. Jerry Brown when he vetoed similar legislation back in 2017.

“Today we require tax returns but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?" Brown wrote in his veto message.

Echoing those remarks (and quoting them), Judicial Watch says the precedent being set by the Golden State could have far-reaching repercussions.

“Using rationales similar to California’s, states might come to demand medical records, mental health records, sealed juvenile records, driving records, results of intelligence, aptitude, or personality tests, college applications, Amazon purchases, Google search histories, browsing histories or Facebook friends," the release states.

Ultimately, the foundation argues, the tax return policy boils down to a direct rebuke to President Donald Trump, who has refused to turn over his tax information in reversal of a tradition that dates back half a century.

“California politicians, in their zeal to attack President Trump, passed a law that also unconstitutionally victimizes California voters,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in the release. “It is an obvious legal issue that a state can’t amend the U.S. Constitution by adding qualifications in order to run for president. The courts can’t stop this abusive law fast enough.”

Read the full Judicial Watch release below:


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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Brazen Gun Theft Suspect Pleads Guilty, Most Weapons Still Unaccounted for

Posted By on Sun, May 19, 2019 at 8:25 AM

One of the stolen guns was used in the shooting of a University Police Department officer in 2017. - FILE
  • File
  • One of the stolen guns was used in the shooting of a University Police Department officer in 2017.
The Eureka man with an outlaw name who was behind a brazen gun theft at Pacific Outfitters nearly four years ago was recently sentenced to 33 months in prison after pleading guilty to the crime in federal court.

Jesse James Marquez was 19 when he cut power lines to the sporting goods store in August of 2015 to dismantle the alarm before breaking in through a skylight and proceeding to make off with the trove of 55 handguns that had been stored in a cabinet. Two weeks, later he took off to Oregon.

Since then, only 17 of the weapons have been recovered, according to the Eureka Police Department, with most found during criminal investigations — several drug-related from Southern Humboldt to Oregon and even out east in Georgia.

One was brandished by Ervin Eugene Sweat Jr. when he nearly killed University Police Department officer Louis Altic, who was shot in the leg in September of 2017 after responding to the Arcata Plaza on reports of a fight involving an armed suspect. Sweat was killed when Altic and another officer returned fire.

“In addition to the prison term, Judge Breyer sentenced Marquez to a three-year term of supervised release and ordered Marquez to pay restitution to Pacific Outfitters in the amount of $56,600,” a Department of Justice press release states.

The brash crime was one of the main reasons then Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills proposed an ordinance — which he withdrew days later amid a public backlash — that would require gun owners and sellers within city limits to lock up their weapons when they weren’t home or a business was closed.

“People have the right to bear arms but that’s just the point — to bear arms. Not to leave them lying around unprotected,” Mills said at the time. “[The ordinance was] written specifically so if someone is home or at their business, they can have all the guns they want lying about, because they're in control of their firearms. It has nothing to do with ‘when somebody goes to bed at night, can they have a gun on their nightstand?’ Of course they can. This is America.”


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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

County Counsel Suit Alleges Conspiracy in Legal Billings; Supes Approve $1.4M in Retro Payments, New Contract with Law Firm

Posted By on Wed, May 8, 2019 at 2:21 PM

Jeffrey Blanck - COUNTY OF HUMBOLDT
  • County of Humboldt
  • Jeffrey Blanck
The county’s head attorney has filed a civil lawsuit against two fellow top administrators, an outside attorney and her Bay Area-based law firm alleging they conspired against him when he tried to expose excessive billing practices.

According to Jefferey Blanck’s lawsuit, bills from Liebert Cassidy Whitmore “increased three-fold” from 2016 to 2018 — from $137,000 to $353,000 — due to Human Resources Director Lisa DeMatteo's practice of sending routine matters to the firm’s partner Suzanne Solomon, bypassing the county counsel’s office.

He gave as examples a more than $6,000 bill “to draft a simple termination letter” and $8,000 paid to handle an arbitration issue “over a $300 dispute.”

Blanck also alleges that County Administrative Officer Amy Nielsen allowed this to take place and that when he tried to bring those costs and an issue with the legitimacy of the firm’s contract to the board of supervisors, the defendants “orchestrated” his removal.

Blanck, who has been on paid administrative leave since March, is asking for an unspecified amount of damages in the legal action filed April 25, which states that he has suffered emotional distress and economic harm due to the defendants’ actions.

Meanwhile, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday retroactively approved $1.4 million in legal payments to Liebert Cassidy Whitmore dating back to 2008.  A staff report from DeMatteo’s office states that “due to administrative oversight” the county's agreement with the firm was never brought to the board but  instead was signed only by the former personnel director, although the services and payments continued for 11 years.

Passed without comment by the board as part of the consent agenda, the item also included a new contract — running from May 7 to June 30, 2020 — with a “maximum payable amount of $150,000” for services related to “labor negotiations, administrative proceedings and legal advice on special employment projects.”

According the 14-page listing of the firm’s $1.4 million in charges since 2008, the county has already paid Liebert Cassidy Whitmore nearly $200,000 this year.

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Sunday, May 5, 2019

Dunaway Paroled 25 Years After Amber Slaughter Murder

Posted By on Sun, May 5, 2019 at 11:48 AM

Amber Slaughter with her grandfather. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Amber Slaughter with her grandfather.
Thomas Jerome Dunaway is a free man, released from prison some 25 years after participating in the execution-style murder of a 14-year-old Eureka girl.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Dunaway was paroled last month to the San Francisco area. While Dunaway had faced life in prison for the 1994 murder of Amber Slaughter on South Jetty, Francine Schulman told a parole board late last year she’d forgiven Dunaway for her daughter’s killing and wanted to see him released from prison. After extensively questioning Dunaway about the remorse he feels and what he’s done to change his life since entering prison as a teenager for a crime he committed while 17 and legally still a juvenile, the board deliberated for about 20 minutes before recommending he be paroled.

It was the second time the board had recommended Dunaway for parole. The first recommendation, made in 2017, was reversed by then Gov. Jerry Brown, who said Dunaway had remained violent through his early years in prison and didn’t express sufficient remorse for or insight into his actions. Current Gov. Gavin Newsom, however, declined to intervene.

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